Concealed guns: a crime-fighting tactic?

In nation's first direct vote on concealed weapons, Missourians decide

Trigger-happy though they may seem to the rest of the world, most Americans have decidedly mixed feelings about guns.

While an overwhelming majority of states let citizens carry concealed weapons, more cities are beginning to sue gun manufacturers for their distribution practices, and clear majorities of Americans (even among gun owners) want trigger locks and other devices to make firearms safer.

Tomorrow, in the first direct popular vote on the issue, Missourians will decide whether they should be able to arm themselves outside the home.

Their vote will give federal politicians a sign of how citizens are balancing gun-rights and gun controls as America's debate over firearms begins to crackle.

The debate is likely to last; even researchers can't agree whether guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens restrain crime or encourage it.

What is clear is that getting guns out of the hands of criminals can have a far greater effect in reducing crime. Some cities already are beginning to reap the rewards. And the Clinton administration has announced a new initiative to encourage more such local-federal partnerships targeting guns.

"The evidence there seems to be quite compelling that separating criminals and guns can be effective," says Philip Cook, Sanford Institute of Public Policy director at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Here in Missouri, Proposition B has stirred spirited debate over the wisdom of allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons. Current state law forbids it. Opponents worry about changing it.

"It's really about what kind of communities we live in," says Gwen Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for Safe Schools and Workplaces Committee, a citizens' group that opposes the referendum.

If it passes, citizens would still not be able to carry guns into government buildings, polling places, school buildings, and churches - but they would be able to enter any other areas, including bars, stadiums, and casinos.

But those organizations can set up their own rules about concealed weapons, counters Amy Pennington, spokeswoman for Missourians Against Crime in Columbia. "Our Constitution allows us to carry a gun.... I would like the right to carry for protection."

Researchers disagree, however, on whether carrying a gun increases or decreases a person's safety.

The most comprehensive study on concealed weapons comes from John Lott, a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. His 1998 book "More Guns, Less Crime" sums up his research. His analysis of all US counties from 1977 to 1994 suggests that states that allowed citizens to carry concealed guns saw an almost immediate decrease in robberies and violent crimes, especially murders (2.9 percent) and rapes (1.7 percent).

Although there are more effective ways to reduce crime, such as increasing arrest and conviction rates, Mr. Lott argues society gets the most bang for its buck by letting citizens pack a concealed gun.

BUT other academic researchers say Lott's methods are seriously flawed. The reality is that no one yet knows what the effects of such laws are, says Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. And "in the absence of that scientific basis ... it's always seemed to me to be something of a dangerous gamble" to introduce more guns to reduce crime.

Another tack: comparing the cost of gun crimes against the benefit of crimes deterred by the use of firearms. Unfortunately, official figures probably understate both the level of crimes and the number of times that people defend themselves by showing a weapon. And estimates vary widely.

Using conservative estimates, the long-term costs and benefits come out roughly even, says Iain Murray, senior analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington. Use of higher estimates of crimes deterred with guns shows that the benefits outweigh the cost.

"The research, unfortunately, probably on both sides deserves some criticism," says Michael Rand, chief of the victimization studies branch at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

While the debate rages over putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, there's great consensus over getting guns out of the hands of criminals. One of the leading programs to do just that is Project Exile, started by the city of Richmond, Va., in 1997.

The idea is simple: When local authorities arrest someone illegally possessing a gun, they transfer the case to federal authorities. That way the case moves more quickly (because of fewer backlogs), the person is held until trial, and receives a stiff mandatory sentence.

The program has drawn praise from both sides: Handgun Control chair Sarah Brady and National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston. In his radio address two weeks ago, President Clinton cited the Richmond program as a model for a national effort to get federal and local law enforcement to work more closely on illegal gun sales and use.

Other cities are also picking up the idea. Since January, Philadelphia's Project Ceasefire has won 68 indictments involving 86 defendants. And though the project has meant the federal government stepping into local jurisdiction, "we've had no complaints from civil rights groups or anybody else," says Michael Levy, first assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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